The Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox year.
Orthodox belief is that Mary died a natural death of old age, and was buried. St Thomas, who had not been present (just as he was not present when Jesus returned to life after his crucifixion) arrived a few days later and insisted on looking into the tomb one last time. Mary’s body was gone.
Apparently, the facts surrounding the Dormition were long known in Jerusalem, but not so much elsewhere until the 5th century
St. John Damascene gives the most interesting and most substantial testimony on the Dormition.
In his second sermon on the Dormition, he appeals to another work, not well known to us, “The History of Euthemius” and says, that after Pulcheria, the wife of Emperor Marcian (450-457), had built a church in honor of the Most Holy Mother of God at Blachernae, a suburb of Constantinople, she wanted to place the body of the Most Holy Mother of God there.
In this matter she turned to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Juvenal (+458), who at the time was at the Council of Chalcedon (451).
He related to her the tradition that, after Mary’s grave had been opened for St. Thomas, her body was not found there. Instead of the body, Juvenal sent to Pulcheria the funeral clothes of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Sophia Fotopoulou. Source.
As it happens, the Orthodox Church has not made a ‘Marian dogma’ of this, i.e. it is not a required belief for those who wish to be saved.
One of the surprising things about the Orthodox Church is how little of its faith and practice is explicitly required. What we do on this day – from affectionate prayers to sumptuous processions with a funeral bier full of flowers – is all done for love. We do it because we want to.
EVERY generation offers hymns, O Virgin, to honour thine entombment.
Come with all creation to sing the hymns of parting, as thou art raised, O Virgin.
Disciples of my Lord Christ, arrive to tend the body of my God’s purest Mother!
Invisibly attending, the Archangels and Angels by rank sing hymns to praise thee.
A custom later spread from Jerusalem to many parts of the Orthodox Church, whereby the liturgical events of Great Friday are reflected in those of the Dormition (you can read the service at Monachos.net).
An epitaphios or funeral bier with an image of the Virgin lying upon it is processed, just as with Christ’s epitaphios on Great Friday, while the hugely popular funeral lamentation of Christ Αι γενεαί πάσαι is adapted and sung for Mary (an extract is sung in the video above).
IN a grave they laid Thee; yet, O Christ, Thou art life.
And they now have laid the Mother of Life as well: both to angels and to men a sight most strange!
We exalt thee greatly, Mother of God most pure, and now we glorify thy holy Dormition, as we bow before thine honoured and precious tomb.
In thy womb thou heldest Him who cannot be contained; thou art life to all the faithful: how canst thou die, and thy body be contained within a tomb?
Thou didst bring forth, Pure Maiden, God the heavenly King, and today in manner royal art carried forth to the Kingdom of the Heavens as a Queen.
The point of this, of course, is to emphasise that the Virgin’s honour is the first taste of that general resurrection which is promised to all, but is given by Christ alone.